Whiplash occurs when a person’s head moves backward and then forward suddenly with great force. This injury is most common following a rear-end auto collision. It can also result from physical abuse, sports injuries, or even amusement park rides.
Whiplash happens when the soft tissues (the muscles and ligaments) of your neck extend beyond their typical range of motion. Your symptoms might not appear for a while, so it’s important to pay attention to any physical changes for a few days following any crash or other injury event.
Whiplash is thought of as a relatively mild condition, but it can cause long-term pain and discomfort.
Whiplash occurs when the muscles in your neck suffer a strain because of a rapid movement backward and then forward. The sudden motion causes your neck’s tendons and ligaments to stretch and tear.
Some things that can cause whiplash include:
- car collisions
- physical abuse, such as being struck or shaken
- contact sports, such as football, boxing, and some martial arts
- horseback riding
- cycling collisions or falls
- falls in which the head violently jerks backward
- blows to the head with a heavy object
Some people with whiplash experience chronic (long-term) pain or headaches for years after the event that caused the initial injury. Doctors may be able to trace this pain to damaged neck joints, discs, and ligaments. But chronic pain following a whiplash injury typically has no medical explanation.
Symptoms usually appear within 24 hours after the incident that caused the whiplash. Sometimes, symptoms may develop after a few days. They can last for several weeks.
Common symptoms include:
- neck pain and stiffness
- headaches, specifically at the base of the skull
- blurred vision
- constant tiredness
Less common symptoms associated with chronic whiplash include:
- problems with concentration and memory
- ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- inability to sleep well
- chronic pain in the neck, shoulders, or head
Most mild to moderate cases of whiplash can be treated at home using over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication, ice, and other remedies.
You should see a doctor after an auto crash or other injury event, or if you have the following symptoms:
- pain or stiffness in the neck that goes away and then comes back
- severe neck pain
- pain, numbness, or tingling in your shoulders, arms, or legs
- any issues with your bladder or bowels
- localized weakness in an arm or leg
Seek urgent care
You should follow up with a doctor immediately if:
- your symptoms spread to your shoulders or arms
- moving your head becomes painful
- you have numbness or weakness in your arms
Your doctor will normally ask you questions about your injury, such as:
- how it happened
- where you feel pain
- whether the pain is dull, shooting, or sharp
They may also do a physical exam to check your range of motion and look for areas of tenderness.
Your doctor might order imaging tests that will allow them to assess any damage or inflammation in the soft tissues, spinal cord, or nerves. They can also detect the presence of a brain injury. These imaging tests may include:
- X-ray (to make sure your pain isn’t connected to any other type of injury or degenerative disease, such as arthritis)
- CT scan
- MRI scan
Rarely, a doctor will order diffuse tensor imaging (DTI) or positron emission tomography (PET scan), which will help find and measure the extent of an injury to the brain or other areas.
The treatments for whiplash are relatively simple. Doctors will often prescribe an OTC pain medication like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or aspirin.
Other treatments include:
- prescription pain relievers for more severe injuries
- muscle relaxants to reduce muscle spasms
- applying ice or heat to the injured area
Physical therapy plays an important role in recovery. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist. Additionally, recovery may include:
- exercises to build strength and flexibility in your neck
- practicing good posture
- learning relaxation techniques to keep your neck muscles from straining and to help with recovery
You might also be given a foam collar to keep your neck stable. Collars should not be worn for more than 3 hours at a time. They should only be used the first couple of days after your injury. However, the use of collars has fallen out of favor for many doctors. It’s believed that using it more than the minimum time may slow healing.
You may also want to try alternative remedies to treat pain. Some include:
Very few people have any long-term complications from whiplash. Usually, recovery time is anywhere from a few days to several weeks. According to the